A recent “at-home meditation retreat” highlighted something I’ve known for a while. I spend too much time on my phone.
I experienced palpable relief and relaxation by being free of my phone, yet gradually fell back into the habit of overusing it.
An article I read last week inspired me to give up my smartphone for a flip phone, and I’m currently in the middle of a two-week experiment designed to mimic just that.
Estimated reading time: 7-14 minutes
At the end of last week’s piece, I declared that today, we’d be back to some form of normality with a nutrition-focused article. But, I’ve decided to pivot slightly. That nutrition post will come next week. Today, I’m going to share some details of a two-week experiment I was recently inspired to attempt. By the time you read this, I’ll be one day into it. What will I be doing?
I’m going back to a flip phone.
In order to see if this is indeed a good idea, for the next two weeks, I’m going to live my life in a way that will mimic the good old low-tech days I experienced from 2004 to 2011. Before I dive into the specifics of the experiment…
Why am I doing this?
In July of this year (2023), I underwent a five-day “at-home meditation retreat.” This meant that for Wednesday, July 12th through Sunday, July 16th, I spent significant time simultaneously meditating on Zoom with over 150 people I’d never met. Each day included roughly four hours of silent meditations broken up into 40-minute sessions, with each start and end marked by a powerful but pleasant gong. All days except Sunday also included the following:
- A 40-minute guided meditation
- A 60-minute lecture on a meditation/spirituality-adjacent topic, like sensory perception, trauma, or emotion
- A 90-minute Q&A session
- A 40-minute poetry reading/sharing session
- A 40-minute sound meditation primarily featuring singing bowls
Throughout each day, two lengthy breaks were given for lunch and dinner, but aside from that, there was little down time. We were all encouraged to participate as much or as little as we liked, though we were told to do our best to avoid using any technology outside of the time we spent on Zoom during each session. This abstinence from technology is a pretty common practice with meditation retreats of every flavor.
Due to their intense focus on presence, these retreats hold tremendous power to expose beliefs, habits, thought-patterns, identities, and structures that may cause suffering. Bringing these unconscious tendencies to the surface can be profoundly uncomfortable at times, but can ultimately provide tremendous relief, peace, and clarity. Distracting oneself from feeling and facing what hasn’t been felt and faced by burying one’s nose in a phone defeats this purpose.
Overall, the retreat itself was at times powerful, fascinating, and joyful; other times, boring, difficult, and draining. But, I’m incredibly glad that I participated in it, and sharing my experiences may be worthy of a future post. However, today I’d like to focus on the intense sense of freedom and relief I felt from five days without a phone. Beyond the time spent in meditation and connecting with a beautifully positive group of people, it was intuitively obvious that much of the tranquility owed to the lack of a “black mirror” in my pocket.
Bluntly, I spend a lot of time on my phone.
A lot. It’s not uncommon for my weekly average to reach five to six hours. I’ve deluded myself into thinking that the phone must somehow count open apps toward the total even when I’m not using them, because surely my usage can’t actually be that high…can it?
This is especially galling since I spend next to no time on social media. I don’t use TikTok or Twitter (oops, I mean X); I deleted Facebook off my phone years ago, and in 2018 I lost my SnapChat password and never bothered to set a new one. And recently, after breaking free from the self-imposed shackles of halfheartedly attempting to build a following in the social media fitness space, I only spend about ten minutes per week on Instagram. The quality of life improvement from abandoning that platform alone was immediate, because I realized I was forcing something that never came naturally. So if I rarely use any of these apps, how in the hell do I sometimes accrue six hours of phone usage each day?
The primary culprits are YouTube, podcasts, and one particular longform article news site. I also use a variety of apps to watch soccer, and probably “waste” a few hours one weekend a month watching the late stages of major Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournaments on Twitch.
And yet, I probably don’t need to do any of this stuff. It’s become habitual, to the point where I often find myself reaching for the phone to watch a YouTube video while completing the arduous task of brushing my teeth or queuing up a podcast for my brutal seven-minute commute to work. And I probably don’t want to know the number of articles I’ve read while sitting on a toilet.
Anyway, I had the (frankly obvious) intuitive sense that none of these distractions serve me. Supporting this feeling, I remembered the multiple occasions in high school and college when I’d broken or lost a phone and had to go without one for a week. It always made me seem somehow lighter. And on that note, during the meditation retreat…
Being without access to my phone for nearly a week felt like a special kind of freedom.
Surprisingly, I didn’t really miss any of the activities listed above. Further, I couldn’t shake the notion, “How great would it be not to even have a smartphone?” I started strongly considering trying to give mine up. But then, reality kicked in.
Currently, not having a smartphone would be a significant hindrance to my business, making life more difficult for both my clients and me. Plus, the evil genius of Apple encoding blue iMessages for texts sent between every iPhone user revealed itself.
Everyone with an iPhone has experienced the extremely first world problem of annoying group chats with far fewer features available because of a single Android user. Among group chats with my family, multiple friend groups, and my soccer teams, I was potentially going to become that “green bubble” guy. Would everyone resent me? Would they naturally start becoming less active in these group chats? To a non-iPhone user, these concerns probably sound ridiculous.
But to those familiar with the scenario I described above, where one person “ruins” an all-iPhone group, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. With rare exception, these chats seem to slowly die off.
So, I abandoned “going flip phone,” and resolved to simply be a little more deliberate about my mobile usage. As I’ve written before, I strongly advocate for a mindset of “always something” rather than “all or nothing.” And this attempt at moderation worked for a while. For multiple weeks, my phone usage dropped by about a third to half, hovering in the three to four hour range.
However, as of the last month or so, it’s steadily crept right back up to the five and even six hour mark.
A “lightbulb moment” flashed brightly last week.
I found myself in the middle of a very busy training day, with seven in-person sessions and multiple client phone calls. However, a 90-minute gap in the afternoon afforded me the valuable opportunity to go home and take a 45-minute nap to refresh myself for the evening block of sessions. Them’s the perks of setting your own hours and living so close to “the office.”
Anyway, as I arrived home, I remember the thought, “Go lie down. Put your phone in the other room, and enjoy some peace and quiet for a while.”
“Actually, how about you just read one article?” another nameless voice prodded. Well, I listened to that one, and before you know it, 30 minutes had passed and there was no chance of any meaningful rest. So I kept reading, and the next article stopped me in my tracks. It was called “Life Really is Better Without the Internet.” Centered on a married couple who made the bold decision to eliminate cell phones and Wi-Fi from their lives, one paragraph in particular stood out to me. The husband wrote,
“On a warm Saturday afternoon this past spring, I reached a breaking point. I had been on my phone for hours a day for the past several weeks. I found myself reaching for the phone whenever there was an opportunity or brief pause in parenting responsibilities. Was this what life was going to be like for the next 30 years? Days filled with a series of small interruptions while I scrolled for scraps of trivia and news?”
Though I don’t have children, I thought, “Holy ****! That’s me.” He then proceeded to detail the challenges of the adjustment period, but ultimately how much his life, his marriage, and his health improved after abandoning Wi-Fi, despite a few inevitable logistical difficulties.
Immediately upon concluding this article, my brain resurrected the idea of giving up my smartphone. I didn’t feel the need to give up Wi-Fi, but by not having a smartphone, I believe I’ll be forced to use my computer for any entertainment I’d normally seek by mindlessly reaching into my pocket. I believe that subtle change will encourage me to be more intentional about pursuing these activities, and I’m excited to find out if that’s true.
In keeping with the “always something” theme of moderation, here’s what I decided to do:
Buy a flip phone and implement the following guidelines:
- My current iPhone will become my “work phone.”
- It is to be turned on one hour before my first training session or client phone call each morning. I’ll use it freely throughout gaps in the work day.
- However, it is to be turned off within 30 minutes of coming home from work each night. That will be my window for responding to texts from friends, family, and clients to whom I could not text between sessions, as well as to finalize the next day’s appointments.
- Upon conclusion of my in-person work week, the phone is not to be turned on again until Sunday afternoon. I will set myself a 90-minute window for recording audio blogs, finalizing appointments, and sending necessary texts to clients.
- I will give my flip phone’s number to the roughly 30 people I text, call, or hang out with most frequently. And if I’m being realistic, this list could likely be cut in half.
As I’ve gotten older, my circle of friends has grown smaller but closer, and I’m lucky enough that through my work, I train multiple people with whom I would gladly (and often do) spend time outside of the gym. Given how busy everyone’s lives are these days, training someone once a week provides a wonderfully convenient opportunity to stay close to people it would be difficult to see more frequently. In addition to that, there’s a decently-sized group of friends I see at least quarterly, a more modest one I spend time with each month, and a small handful I see each week or so.
For this latter group, in addition to my family, it makes sense for them to have a phone number at which they could reach me at any time. That’s what the flip phone will be for. But that’s it. I’m no longer under the illusion of self-importance that many events happen that people must tell me about immediately. Most things can wait until the next morning.
But, in situations where friends and I have plans to meet in person, or in the rare case of genuine emergencies, the people I interact with most will have a way to get ahold of me.
Nobody else will probably even notice a difference, since I’ll continue to interact with them via my current phone number in limited time windows. Past the age of twenty-five, I think most people understand that it’s not a big deal if you take a day or two to respond to a text. The handy new iPhone feature that allows us to mark text message threads as unread helps this tremendously.
As I said, I plan to trial this flip phone plan before diving in full-throttle, and this is where being married to your best friend comes in handy. Tess has graciously agreed that for the next two weeks, she’ll be the point of contact for any in-person plans that require communication after work hours or on weekends.
And this serves as a pretty handy proxy for determining who needs the flip phone number. If you live in Arizona but don’t already have Tess’s contact info, we probably don’t see each other often enough for you to need it! Of course, anyone who wants the flip phone number will get it. I hope I’ll never grow so pretentious that I’ll treat this number as a closely guarded secret.
With that, starting Monday, December 3rd, Tess’s iPhone will temporarily become my flip phone. And she still has an iPhone 7, so it may as well be one. Just kidding, my love!
Anyway, after two weeks, if this experiment brings the tranquility and reduced craving for distractions I expect, I’ll complete the telecommunications equivalent of traveling back to the 2000’s. I’ll buy a flip phone and make the switch permanent.
The additional monthly cost of having two phones will be well worth the benefits. And of course, in a few weeks, expect a full report from me on how this experiment went and what I learned.
Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. Would you ever consider giving up your smartphone? What would it take? Reply to this email and let me know!